Mobility during the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe

lenderscheid micoquian aggsbach

This is a elongated Lydite scraper with scalar retouches from the Middle Palaeolithic Lenderscheid site near Kassel, where Neanderthals used an outcrop of fine-grained tertiary quartzite as raw material supply for the production of their artifacts. Numerous  quartzite cores were left at the site, together with a limited number of formal tools, often broken during the production process(http://www.aggsbach.de/2010/12/lenderscheid-2/). The raw material for the scraper, displayed in this post, comes from the Eder valley approximately 20 km away from Lenderscheid. Obviously the scraper was imported as a finished tool.

There is a long-standing question over the nature of Neanderthal mobility, with some authors arguing that Neanderthals moved over long distances during their lifetimes, others arguing that Neanderthals only moved only over a limited area  for most of their lives. The evidence for mobility comes mainly from indirect evidence such as tracing the sources of lithic raw material at Neanderthal sites as well as the presence of “exotic” (non-local) artefacts or objects, such as sea-shells at sites far from the coast.

An almost universal pattern exists for the Middle Paleolithic lithic raw material procurement in Europe. According to the first in-depth studies by Féblot-Augustin (1993, 1997) 60–98 % of all lithic materials including cores and blanks came from within 5 km of all the sites; usually 1–2% of materials came from 5- 30 km distance from the sites and consisted mainly of tools and blanks; A few entirely finished tools consistently were made on materials from 20 or 30 to 100 or even 300 km away. This pattern appears to be fairly consistent across western Europe. The very small number of tools that are made of raw materials from further afield may be tools that were part of a person’s personal gear and “survived” several residential moves.

In contrast, the sites of Early Upper Paleolithic humans generally ignored “second choice” raw material and relied more upon exotic materials often coming from more than 100 km away. In some cases, marine shells from more than 500 km away are present.

The Quina-Mousterian site of Champ Grand in the Loire Valley between the Paris Basin and Massif Central for example  features ten raw materials (1% of the assemblage, but numbering 568 artifacts) that were found to originate from sources >80k m distant in several different directions. The estimated distances include 180-200 km northwards from the site, and c. 240 km southwards, the latter actually a minimum value due to straight-line crossing of mountains and high plateaus. In the case of Abric Romaní (N-Spain), the location of raw material sources was more fixed, with flint available in a radius of 5–10 km and limestone and quartz in the immediate (1 km) surrounding of the rock shelter. During the “Swabian Mousterian”,  lithic raw materials from all the sites are dominated by local Jurassic cherts from within about 3 km, with lesser quantities of radiolarite, quartzites and other raw materials. With the rare exception of examples of Bavarian tabular flint originating from ca. 100 km distance, these raw materials can be found in the sources within ca. 20 km of the Swabian caves.

During the Middle Paleolithic transfers >200 km are more frequent in Central Europe (for example during the “Taubachian” at Kulna / Moravia), which may be linked to a more extreme topography and increased continentality in terms of environmental conditions.

Raw material studies were used to substantiate the hypothesis, that Neanderthals lived in small groups that had little contact with one another, focusing heavily on “magnet-locations” in the landscape (Binford 1984).

But raw material studies are more ambivalent and flawed, than generally suggested. For example we are not able to construct the mentalities of the Neanderthal society. Was there any need or desire for long distance prospection or exchange? Was long distance prospection for Neanderthals with their limited hunting equipment probably more dangerous compared to Upper Palaeolithic times? Did the wish of social intimacy within the local Neanderthal groups prevent the possibility of meeting new friends beyond the “border”? Even today I know a lot of people within rural Southern Lower Saxony; that experience more than 90% of their lifetime within a radius of 30-40 km (except for their holiday trips of course!). This does not mean that these lower Saxonians are non AMHs- they are just conservative.

Some other variables that may affect our perception:

  • The accessibility of raw materials during climatic fluctuations is not known for most of the sites.
  • Site functions, duration of stay, different mobility patterns and settlement systems have a deep impact on the choice of raw materials.
  • Specialization on specific raw materials  is another factor that may influence decisions.

Strontium isotope analysis of from a Neanderthal tooth from the site of Lakonis, Greece at ca. 40 k.a. BP showed that the LHK 1 individual spent a portion of childhood at a location away from the site and region in which the individual was found. This may have been a region 20 km away, or even further. This is a clear indication that Neanderthals did move longer distances over their lifetimes and were not confined to limited geographic areas as suggested by raw material studies, which were evaluated in a mono-dimensional and deterministic manner. There is a clear need for better theories about mobility during Palaeolithic times.

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2 Responses to Mobility during the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe

  1. Dear ‘us’ (or Katzman),
    I (*1933) am a ‘life-long’ amateur- philosopher, and since I lost the belief in a Higher Creator, I try to reconstruct our human story. My conclusion is that all important inventions that made us as we are, have been female inventions. Our linguisticness, the use of fire, agriculture … but first of all the stone technology.
    Women are naturally interested in food, because they have not only to nourish themselves but also the children. We see it in the chimpanzees: it are the females in the first place who do termite fishing, nut cracking and using hammer stones and anvil stones, and sometine using a skin for transporting nuts onto the cracking place (Tai) and digging tubers with digging sticks (Ugalla). Especially the hand ax seems me to be a typical women tool. Of course men made their own hunting weapons. But overall the development of the stone technology seems me to be female business. What do you think?

  2. Craig Riedl says:

    Yes, I agree Frans.
    Where are all the women and children in the archaeological record? Where are the toys? The toys are there they are just not recognized as such. Some are perceived as shaman’s objects or religious objects. Of course most of the objects made for children were made from perishable material such as wood or fiber. Some childrens toys made from wood, corncobs and fiber survive in the dry caves of the American southwest. Little split willow figures of deer and mountain sheep are mostly attributed to hunting magic. Other clay objects may just be childrens dolls. We must assume that eary humans had the capacity to imagine and yes play. Young chimpanzees play and play with objects.

    Although we cannot know if women or men made lithic tools I assume both sexes used them and carried them with them when on the move. The handaxe was a versatile tool and may have been used by everyone. I would assume that a woman would know how to retouch a knife or handaxe while cutting up an animal without asking her man to do it.

    Among the Inuit everone, including children has a knife which is used to cut off pieces of meat while clinched in the teeth. I have seen this being done by young children in documentary films. I can only assume that this method of eating flesh was also used in the Paleolithic.

    I always carried a jack knife even as a child of six. I was taught how to keep it sharp in order to have better control over it when carving objects.

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